When we arrived at the campground where we were staying in Golden, Colorado, I climbed out of the truck to guide Dan in parallel parking our 25-foot trailer. Even under the easiest circumstances, I am pretty horrible at this. A number of times, I’ve stomped up to the driver’s side window in tears and demanded that Dan get out and look at the situation for himself.
This time, as I flung my hands around in attempts to communicate, I couldn’t help but notice our neighbor—an older man with white hair setting up wire fencing outside of his RV.
They must have dogs, I thought, noting a possible future set up for our own dogs.
But the distraction only grew from there. The man placed an orange cone in the center and threw a blue tarp over the enclosure. Then, he opened the side door of his rig, and a series of miniature poodles raced down the steps like a chute into the fencing.
I counted 10 of them, and in a variety of shades. Dan, meanwhile, basically had parallel parked our trailer on his own. I rushed over to tell him about our neighbors.
The Zoppé Family Circus
I was wrong about the number of dogs. There were seven more inside, waiting for their turn—17 dogs total.
Over the next few days, I learned that the man I’d seen, Rudy Heinen, and his wife Carla Heinen were circus performers and trainers with the Zoppé Family Circus. They’d converted the back of their 30,000-lb. toy hauler RV into living quarters for their team of performing pups.
Carla’s maiden name was Zoppé. For six generations, her family has run the circus, which began in Italy. During World War II, the Italian government confiscated the circus horses for battle, and the circus was bombed.
After the war, the Ringling Bros. Circus in the United States contacted the Zoppés and made an agreement: They’d send the Zoppé Circus an elephant if the Zoppés sent Carla’s father, a talented bareback horse rider, to perform in America.
“So my dad was traded for an elephant, and that’s how we got here,” Carla tells me.
Carla’s dad and mom met in the circus, and started the Zoppé Family Circus in America. Today, Carla and her siblings run the show with a cast of about 20 people. They perform 12 shows a week from June to November. In Oklahoma City, where they perform at the Oklahoma State Fair, they’ll do as many as 30 shows in 10 days.
Each show kicks off with Carla’s brother and brother-in-law performing as Italian-style clowns. They carry out a trunk and unload the myriad hoops, juggling clubs, and other items the performers use. Carla’s mom then reads a story about the family’s history.
Dressed in Russian-style knee-high boots, velvet skirt, and corset, Carla waits in the wings with Rudy and their dancing dogs. During their act, the dogs jump through flowered hoops, flip off of seesaws, and dive from air balloons into Rudy’s waiting arms.
“We train them with lots of love and hotdogs,” Carla says.
A Family of Performers
Carla and Rudy met in the circus in 1994. Rudy was born in Germany, and trained large animals—hippos, elephants, monkeys, lions, tigers, and bears—before switching to dogs. In one of the photos Carla shows me, a blonde Rudy sits with a giant white tiger, surrounded by his fellow performers—among them Siegfried and Roy, perhaps the most famous animal trainers of our time.
Carla is 26 years younger than her husband, and was born in Baltimore, Maryland. “Because we were always on the road, my brother was born in the Bozo Show parking lot in Chicago; my sister was born in Sarasota, Florida.”
At age 3, Carla started performing. “Every child in the circus business, their first trick is standing on their dad’s hand. From the time you can even hardly stand, they’ll show you off.”
Carla’s half-siblings, the famous Flying Wallendas, are also performers, and she passed the lifestyle on to her son. He performs the Globe of Death at the Wisconsin Dells every summer, circling the interior of a giant steel globe on motorcycle.
“It’s a lifestyle you can’t compare to anything else because you have nothing else to compare it to,” Carla says.
The Zoppé Family Circus also includes horseback riders (Carla’s sister), a woman who hangs from her hair, contortionists, acrobats, and a rolla bolla couple.
A Handful of Sawdust
When I met Carla and Rudy, they had just traveled 1,600 miles from shows in Westhampton Beach, New York. It took them nearly four days, with frequent breaks for the dogs.
They pull their 5th wheel trailer with the front of a 1998 semi truck, which has nearly 750,000 miles on it. Carla didn’t sleep the entire drive.
“I never close my eyes. We had an accident a couple years ago that scared me so bad I should’ve gotten therapy for it. In there now, I’m holding onto things, stepping on brakes. My husband says I ride in the truck like I’m riding a bucking horse,” she says. “I’m only 52, but I’m kind of ready to retire. Mostly because of this trailer and how heavy it is, these last two years have been a real hard time for me.”
Her history with the circus keeps her going. “It’s in my blood,” she says. “It’s a scary thing to not have done anything else and make a lifestyle change.”
From Golden, the Zoppé Family Circus was heading 170 miles west to perform at Snowmass, Colorado, a ski resort at 14,000 feet elevation. Carla was stressed—about the trip and about bears on the mountain that might be drawn out by the smell of circus food. But the end was in sight.
At the close of each Zoppé show, Rudy and Carla shuffle the dogs back into their cages. The clown returns with his trunk on his back to pack up the gear, and Carla’s mom reads a poem about the handful of sawdust that goes into the trunk as well. “You take the good luck from this tent and you bring it to the next town,” Carla says, adding, “It’s one big story, and all of it is true.”
(Want to check out the Zoppé Family Circus in action? See videos on their YouTube channel.)